Duffy’s Crash Course on Good Writing

Dr. Matt J. Duffy

Check out Dr. Duffy’s video grammar tips as well.

Georgia State University

© 2007 All Rights Reserved.

Self-edit: No writer can compose an error-free document on the first draft. Instead, write your piece and then leave it for some period of time. With the distance of time, you are more likely to see writing mistakes that you overlooked before.

Be clear: When you read over what you wrote, does it make sense – or do you stumble over a phrase? If it’s not clear, then rewrite it. Above all, writing should make sense – just say what you’re trying to say, don’t worry about it sounding grand.

Don’t be fancy: Don’t use longer words because you think they sound better.

> Utilize –> use

> Resides –> live

Omit needless words: Constantly search for passages that can be shortened. Always reread first drafts with an eye on deleting fluff.

> “The fact that the project was behind schedule” –> “Because the project was behind schedule.”

>”This is a subject that” –> “This subject”

> “the reason why is that” –> “because”

> “as well as” –> “and”

Use active voice: Wherever possible, the “doer” should be the subject of your sentence.

> “I made a mistake” rather than “a mistake was made by me.”

Avoid pronouns at the beginning of a sentence: Sentences should rarely start with “it was” or “there are.” These constructs can easily be rewritten:

> “There are several key elements in Japanese cinema” –> “Japanese cinema consists of several key elements.”

Avoid weak verbs: Try to avoid forms of “to be” (“is,” “was,” “are,” “were,” and so on) as your main verb. Strong verbs make for powerful and engaging writing.

> “He made the recommendation that they read the book .” –> “He recommended that they read the book.”

> “She is often found in the cafeteria alone” –> “She often dines by herself in the cafeteria.”

Don’t be vague: Avoid using “this,” “it,” “these” as subjects of your sentence or clauses. Don’t assume the reader can read your mind and will know the antecedent that this pronoun refers to – they often do not know, and they get lost. So specify what “this” refers to by using it and the other demonstrative pronouns as adjectives that modify (and identify) the noun you are talking about.

> “Because of this, the government decided to.” –> “Because of Thompson’s objections, the government decided to.”

Parse your sentences for correct grammar usage: An independent clause is a clause that can stand alone – that is, contains both a subject and a verb. Writers must understand clauses to avoid comma mistakes and run-on sentences. Two independent clauses must be separated by a comma and a conjunction. Only independent clauses can be separated with a semicolon.

> “He jumped over the fence, and then he ran to the school.” <– both clauses could stand alone, so you need the comma and then conjunction “then.”

The following examples show wrong versions of the same sentence:

> “He jumped over the fence, and then ran into the school.” <– no comma needed because second clause can’t stand alone.

> “He jumped over the fence, then he ran into the school.” <– need a conjunction

> “He jumped over the fence, and ran into the school.” <– no comma needed
Understand basic pronoun use: Subjective pronouns “I,” “we,” “they” are used as subjects. Objective pronouns “me,” “us,” “them” are used as objects (of sentences and of prepositions.)

When in doubt, change the sentence around to see how it sounds.

> “Between you and I, we should.” –> “Between I and you, we should” <– doesn’t sound right.
> “Who” is subjective, “whom” is objective –> insert different pronouns to figure it out

> “He gave the bag to who?” –> “He gave the bag to he?” <– doesn’t sound right, so it must be whom.
Don’t be redundant: Say what you’re saying once and assume the reader got it. Try not to use the same word twice in a sentence or in consecutive sentences.

> “The author of the article said he writes three articles a day” –> “The author of the piece said he writes three articles a day.”
Its and it’s: “Its” shows possession, whereas “it’s” is a contraction for “it is.”
Avoid short, choppy sentences: Combine a short sentence with another sentence; that is the purpose of conjunctions. When you do use short sentences sparingly, they will be more powerful.

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© Matt J. Duffy and Oxford Editing, 2014.